The New York Attorney General’s Office has accused four major retailers – GNC, Wal-Mart, Walgreens and Target – of selling fraudulent and potentially dangerous herbal supplements after conducting testing on 78 products. They found that four out of five products did not contain ANY of the herbs listed on the labels. Once more, not only did the tests show that the supplements labeled “medicinal herbs” did not contain what they said, they did contain residues of houseplants, fillers and in some cases, substances that could be dangerous to those with allergies.

In the past, the FDA has targeted individual supplements found to contain dangerous ingredients. However, this is the first time that a law enforcement agency has threatened the biggest retail and drugstore chains with legal action for selling what is said were “deliberately misleading herbal products.”

And it’s about time.

We have talked at length over the years about supplement quality (or more appropriately, the lack thereof) available over the counter. This move by the New York Attorney General is just the latest in a long string of reports on the lack of supplement quality in the general market.

This study demonstrates that most of the products available over the counter are of very poor quality at best, and possibly dangerous. One of the products tested in this most recent study that was labeled wheat- and gluten-free was found to contain wheat! This could have severe consequences to anyone with a gluten sensitivity or intolerance. As the New York Attorney General stated: “Mislabeling, contamination and false advertising are illegal. They also pose unacceptable risks…especially to those with allergies to hidden ingredients.”

When we first opened our clinic, we did not carry any supplements. Instead, we sent our clients out with a list of what to purchase. When they didn’t see the results we expected, we began to carry products from manufacturers with documented quality assurance. Since that time, I firmly believe that when it comes to supplements “buyer beware” should be interpreted as “you cannot find quality supplements over the counter”. Studies like this provide an increasing body of evidence that this interpretation isn’t far from the truth.

Does this mean that all supplements available over the counter are nothing more than cheap fillers and/or contain contaminants? No. But it does indicate that a great majority of them are likely so and an informed consumed needs to do some serious research, or find a provider that has done that research for them, before purchasing and using a nutritional supplement in an attempt to improve their health.